Sunday, September 02, 2007

Can ecologists save the ecosphere?

We can be grateful for the painstaking and detailed work done by those scientists calling themselves ecologists who have alerted us to the grave dangers facing the human race. Those dangers, it turns out, are largely the result of the colossal impact of human activities on the climate, the forests, the oceans, the soil, and the water resources of the planet and on the myriad species supported by these systems.

It would seem to follow then that whenever ecologists gather, they would be screaming at the top of their lungs (or at least doing what passes for this in academic circles) about the imminent peril in which we humans find ourselves. But at a recent annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), those figurative screams could only be rated as somewhere between muffled and nonexistent. The program naturally included many technically oriented sessions. That was to be expected. But only two of the dozens of presentations appeared to sound the alarm. I attended one of them as a panelist, and that session focused on sustainability planning for municipalities. I asked my fellow panelists later, "Where is the alarm in the rest of the conference? Don't these scientists read their own research? They must know the awful predicament in which humanity has placed itself?"

These panelists explained the seeming lack of alarm this way: It's not that ecological scientists fail to understand the situation. But they are first and foremost scientists. Many see their work as a craft. They want to be regarded as the best at what they do. Why stir up a hornet's nest making policy prescriptions that are bound to be controversial even among other ecologists? Why not stick to producing the finest research possible which, after all, will help build one's reputation and thus pave the way for future research funding?

All of this seemed perfectly logical. But, still I asked, why aren't these same scientists speaking up publicly, at least in general terms, about the dangers we face? Some are, came the answer. But many others fear for their funding. Since the vast majority of funding for ecological research comes from government, most scientists shy away from policy pronouncements. Why antagonize lawmakers who appropriate the funds or government employees who disburse them? That might lead to a loss of funding, and then one's research is over. And, even when no funds are at stake, many ecologists do not want to be grouped with environmental activists or at least not with ones viewed as extremists. Such an association might consign them to fringe status (even in their own profession) and exclude them from policy debates altogether. It's an understandable reaction, and one that anyone who writes or speaks publicly about environmental issues can comprehend.

But there is a third reason, they continued. Most ecologists don't concern themselves very much with the effects of human societies on ecosystems. (Some readers may need to pause here for a moment, as I did, to absorb this wholly unexpected revelation.) The majority of ecologists regard themselves as purists who want to unlock the secrets of undisturbed ecosystems. But, what ecosystems can now truly be called undisturbed? I asked. In response my fellow panelists simply shrugged their shoulders as if to say, yes, we know, but this is how the game is played.

In fairness I should point out that the ESA is aware of the disconnect between the work of their member scientists and the public at large. The organization is making a serious attempt to increase its public education efforts. I attended a session on expanding ecological literacy in which written and oral feedback was solicited from all the participants, many of them nonscientists like myself. And, all members of the ESA have apparently already been asked to fill out surveys about public education and make suggestions.

Still, I couldn't help thinking that this effort seemed like too little, too late when the increasing tempo of climate change and resource depletion seems to be bringing us rapidly to the brink. By contrast, the leisurely pace at which organizations move and professional cultures change could mean a long gestation period before any substantial increase in public education efforts takes place. But as I reflect about this, it seems unfair to make these scientists responsible for doing everything. In truth, ecological scientists have already heavily influenced school and college curricula. And, they have inspired many popularizers of their work including teachers, writers and activists who are furiously trying to educate the public about basic ecological concepts and about the results of ongoing ecological research.

So here's my answer to the question which is the title of this piece: No, ecologists cannot save the ecosphere, not by themselves. They are going to need a lot of help from those of us who are able to translate their work into something the public and policymakers can digest. And, they are going to need even more help to put into practice our evolving ecological understanding in a way that can provide a sustainable home for us, for our descendants, and for the many species whose fate now lies in our hands.


Hanley Tucks said...

So basically the ecologists are fiddling while Rome burns?

Awesome. Well, that's really helpful.

Maybe in a few decades they can study the ecology of roaches and rats, when that's all we've got left.

We pretty much have to expect that government will follow rather than lead - that's the way democracy works, they do what we tell them to. But I think it's fair to expect those who actually know something to be doing some of that telling.

Anonymous said...

you can't say "the ecologists" as if ecologists are some homogeneous group.

Ecology is a very broad field of study with most practitioners focussing on smaller components like the ecology of fish, the ecology of birds, the ecology of ants etc... so it is not surprising that many ecologists while aware of the impacts that climate change might have on their particular species of choice may not feel confident using this information to "spread the message".

Afterall, your own disparaging use of the words "roaches and rats" suggests that you might not be convinced by an argument that used insects to demonstrate climate impacts.

My observation is that the public at large is only interested in the large "charismatic" creatures: whales, tigers, pandas, bilbies etc.

And in this country (OZ) where the current govt seemingly doesn't believe in any research that doesn't have an immediate profit motive, pointing out that the emperors policies may leave him environmentally stripped isn't necessarily a smart move!

Given that one assumption of our society seems to be that "growth i$ good", questioning this driving assumption to current economic planning is not going to be welcomed...

And this government does what industry tells them - unless the voters look like kicking them out and then they just try to discredit the opposition, while the opposition takes a policy position so close to the governments that you can't tell them apart.


Anonymous said...

You describe the climate scientists I have heard talk very well. I guess if the earth becomes inhabitable, they think they can move to Mars.